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EU: Commissioner Fans Flames Of Debate On Turkish Membership

Is Turkey's flag the next to join the ranks of the EU? Frits Bolkestein, a Dutch commissioner for the European Union, this week upped the stakes in the debate within the bloc on whether Turkey qualifies for full membership. Bolkestein is known for being candid, and he has not made a secret of his skepticism toward Turkish membership in the bloc. He outlined some of his arguments in a speech delivered yesterday in The Netherlands, prompting officials to play down his remarks and caution that the European Commission has until 6 October to decide whether entry talks with Turkey are viable.

Brussels, 7 September 2004 (RFE/RL) -- As a commissioner in charge of the European Union's internal market, Frits Bolkestein's views might be seen as having little consequence for Turkey's bid for EU membership.

But that is not necessarily the case. Bolkestein remains active on the Dutch political scene. More importantly, the European Commission functions as a "college" -- a body of individuals who have an equal vote in every decision.

Bolkestein will step down shortly after the European Commission makes its recommendation about Turkey on 6 October. He has clearly chosen to speak his mind in the remaining weeks.

Yesterday, Bolkestein compared the EU with the Austro-Hungarian empire, whose collapse he attributed to its inability to consolidate a rapid expansion. He also warned against a tide of Muslim immigration, choosing to use the defeat of Turkish forces at Vienna in 1683 as an example of how this had been avoided.

Today, European Commission spokesman Reijo Kemppinen sought to quell the controversy, suggesting that Bolkestein's views may still change.

"The position of the commission will be seen, read, and hopefully well understood only once we have adopted that proposal, which will happen in the beginning of October," Kemppinen said. "Before, as we have seen, individuals, including some of the members of the commission, have expressed their own views as to the desirability of this process and, as is usual, also expressing them in different speeches, articles, and so on."
Bolkestein focused on the impact of Turkish membership on the bloc's agriculture and regional subsidies, warning that the EU could "implode."

Kemppinen appeared to take Bolkestein's comments in stride.

"I choose to take this in the context of freedom of expression, and I have no doubt in my mind that these people are well able to distinguish between facts which are not yet available to them and their opinions at this stage, which, as I said, they are free to express," Kemppinen said.

Bolkestein made clear in his speech, however, that he is thinking in larger terms. His argument was less about whether Turkey fulfills the EU's so-called Copenhagen entry criteria of democracy and rule of law than the wider implications of Ankara's accession.

He spoke at length about the downfall of the Austro-Hungarian empire, and then proceeded to Turkey, making it clear he thinks it is a step too far for the EU. He focused on the impact of Turkish membership on the bloc's agriculture and regional subsidies, warning that the EU could "implode." Those subsidies jointly account for 80 to 90 percent of the EU's massive annual budget.

Bolkestein also noted that Turkey must "change fundamentally" if it is to join, suggesting he does not believe Ankara meets the Copenhagen criteria.

Kemppinen reaffirmed the European Commission's determination to focus only on the Copenhagen criteria when assessing Turkey.

"The only thing I can repeat is that the commission is in process of adopting its recommendation on Turkey, based on the Copenhagen criteria, and we have no intention to include in that evaluation any other criteria," Kemppinen said.

Turkey has often expressed the fear that its wide-ranging reforms could be interpreted as insufficient by the EU.

However, the word in Brussels is that the commission will decide that Turkey's reforms are sufficient to meet the criteria and start talks.

Bolkestein also picked up on a point made by the American Middle East scholar Bernard Lewis, who predicts the EU will be "Islamic" by the end of the century.

In his speech, Bolkestein said that, should that happen, the 1683 rollback of Turkish forces from the gates of Vienna would have been in vain. The point raised hackles, but it seemed more generally directed at the threat of unmanaged immigration than specifically aimed at Turkey. Turkey's role in current immigration into the EU is negligible, especially when compared to North Africa, for example.

Bolkestein also noted that if Turkey is accepted, then Ukraine and Belarus must be, too, adding that both are "more European" than Turkey. He predicted that within 15 to 20 years, the EU could have as many as 40 member states.

Yet, somehow, Bolkestein's spokesman at the European Commission, Jonathan Todd, felt able to say that Bolkestein does not oppose Turkish membership in the European Union.

"Mr. Bolkestein does not want to prejudge the discussion of the commission, which is due in October, but he does not oppose the accession of Turkey into the European Union," Todd said.

Whatever the case, Bolkestein has too few allies in the European Commission to negatively affect the report. The true test for Ankara will come in December, when EU member states are expected to take the actual decision to launch entry talks.

Then, once the talks are successfully concluded, Turkey's admission would have to be approved by the parliaments of all EU member states.